In 2020/21, 3.9 million children in the UK are living in relative poverty (in households with an income less than 60% of the median household income). While policy aims to address the attainment gap linked to poverty, the current approach will take 500 years to close that gap. In this article, from our Power in Place publication, Dr Carl Emery and Dr Louisa Dawes explore what needs to change to move children out of poverty quickly and equitably.
- Poverty impacts young people’s educational attainment rates as well as their social and emotional skills and mental health.
- The attainment gap approach understands poverty through progress measures and ignores the fluid and contextually distinct nature of poverty.
- As such, decision-makers must step into the local community, put feet on the ground, and listen carefully to a range of voices that represent all people to gather thick, intelligent data on the lived experiences of those most impacted by poverty.
Poverty is complex
Poverty is not ‘one-size-fits-all’. Family composition, ethnicity, age, disability and place significantly contribute to likelihood and experience of poverty. A lone-parent of Pakistani origin in a Rochdale housing association flat will experience poverty differently to a White British two-parent family in a private rented house in Southampton.
Moreover, when we factor in the ‘poverty premium’, the additional costs low-income households pay for essential services and goods, it becomes evident that poverty is nuanced, fluid and place shaped.
How does poverty impact children?
Despite decades of policy attention, the attainment gap (the difference in educational performance between pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) and their peers) at GCSE has barely changed, and at all stages of children’s education inequalities persist. Although the total share of pupils achieving ‘good’ GCSEs (Grade C or Grade 4) has increased, children from better off families have been 27-28% more likely to meet these grades throughout the last 15 years.
Data shows that children leaving school with few or no meaningful qualifications are less likely to enter into, and progress in, employment; to support the learning of their own children; or to achieve social mobility goals. Negative educational experiences also have a detrimental effect on communities, shaping environmental, social, economic and democratic engagement.
Beyond attainment, poverty has broader impacts on children’s social and emotional skills, mental health, behaviour, and wider wellbeing. Put simply: poverty makes school and schooling harder for all involved.
The current response to child poverty
For the past decade, policy discourse around child poverty and education has centred on raising standards of teaching and learning so that schools can ‘do it alone’. Education policy reform has adopted a telescopic focus on narrowing the attainment gap to achieve social mobility. While educational achievement is important, it is not the panacea for child poverty. Improving educational achievement among disadvantaged pupils has not reduced child poverty, and calculations estimate that it will take 500 years to close the attainment gap.
Current practice takes little account of individual characteristics such as gender, race and class. Policy initiatives in education advocate ‘off the shelf’ practices driven by big data, which focus on ‘improving’ teaching through prescribed pedagogies and ‘extended’ learning or wellbeing programmes. The same interventions are delivered throughout the UK. Many of these activities are funded through the Pupil Premium (PP) initiative, a per pupil grant, generally for pupils receiving FSM, to reduce the attainment gap. Herein lies a critical problem – the attainment gap approach only understands poverty through progress measures, meaning that children are reduced to standardised metrics that ignore the fluid and contextually distinct nature of poverty.
Local Matters: A place-based approach to child poverty
Our research programme, Local Matters, is premised on the belief that this standardised approach, that obscures structural, social and employment factors and conceals the history, culture, geography and psychology of the place children live in, is inadequate.
Local Matters is a place-based, relational, socio-economic approach to child poverty. We are supported by diverse groups of professionals and agencies, who acknowledge that schools need to utilise local, contextualised knowledge alongside place-based evidence to enhance their practice. We champion a need to develop a deeper understanding of the local by exploring the values, power and positions of those living together in communities and hearing the voices of all parties, including pupils, teachers, parents and local policy actors.
“You need to understand how poverty looks in your area and how certain actions and school decisions can put pressure on parents and children to live up to the expectations of others. By having a deeper understanding, through Local Matters, of the impact of the choices we make, about the financial decisions that require parents to participate, (for example, dressing up on World Book Day) we will help to eliminate further barriers to learning.” – Primary School Headteacher
Local Matters supports practitioners across the education spectrum to collaborate on building research-driven, sophisticated accounts of disadvantage. These accounts are drawn from locally lived experiences, show structural inequalities, and support teachers in building a place-based critical response to poverty. Our programme equips participants with social research skills, enabling them to become locally embedded social justice researchers. This expertise on the local poverty context is applied, through action research, to school practice and policy. Local Matters brings the school community together and gives a voice to all, linking ‘what works’ with ‘what matters’.
The role of policy
Our experiences of working with a range of policy actors over the past five years have shown that there is a need to go beyond current, limited data to gather thick, intelligent data on the lived experiences of those most impacted by poverty. It is vital that decision-makers step into the local community, put feet on the ground, and listen carefully to a range of voices that represent all people, not just those who are most visible or speak loudest.
Secondly, there is a need for policymakers to move away from imposing traditional, top-down models onto communities. Instead, policymakers must build recognition, that is respecting and reflecting back the full range of identities and cultural differences in the community, through asking what parental engagement and attainment mean to parents and pupils across different contexts.
Finally, policy must redistribute time, money, access, power and activities based on real need rather than myths or big data sets. We encourage policymakers to seek out and create safe spaces for families and children living in poverty to relate their experiences rather than fitting into ascribed one-size-fits-all roles.
In a fragmented education system with largely homogenised curricula and a standardised inspection regime, we call specifically on multi academy trusts to recognise the complexities and necessity of local context. schools need greater autonomy in the design of their curricula, but within a locally federated system, and must be granted the ability to judge and enact ‘what matters’ with ‘what works’ locally.
This article was originally published in Power in Place, a collection of thought leadership pieces and expert analysis providing evidence-led solutions for thriving and sustainable communities.
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